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President's Blog: Becoming a Courageous Sector

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

At the start of the year, the team at SCG envisioned a very different Annual Conference, one that recalled our past full-day convenings in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. But as the pandemic wore on and the global demands for racial justice intensified, we knew that our annual gathering of grantmakers and community leaders needed to reflect and respond to the urgency of our collective moment. We knew that SCG, like the entire philanthropic sector, needed to reevaluate our responsibility to our hurting communities. 

Our 2020 Annual Conference, Meeting the Movement, was a reflection of the leadership and dialogue we firmly believe is needed to move our sector forward. Across three mornings, leaders — from movements, government, nonprofits, and philanthropy — pushed us to address the long-standing inequities that threaten our recovery, democracy, and future. 

At the heart of each of our panels, one reality became increasingly clear: if philanthropy is genuinely committed to eradicating systemic injustice, we must become a more courageous sector. 

In the plenary conversation, Breaking Through and Building Power for Social Movements, I was deeply moved and challenged by the sincerity of our speakers Melina Abdullah, Vijay Gupta, Lateefah Simon, and Eryn Wise. These leaders highlighted the distinction between nonprofits and movements and philanthropy’s historic lack of support for leaders on the ground. Our panelists urged us to examine the ways nonprofit culture and its modes of operation often do more to uphold white supremacy than combat it. 

I know that this conversation was difficult for many of us to hear, and I appreciate your willingness to lean in and listen to our community leaders when they share their experiences and pain. In moving past our discomfort, we abandon the practices that perpetuate injustice.

The truth is that our communities can no longer wait for us to take action. By investing in movement leaders now, we can support their liberation and not be complicit in their oppression.

To inspire us to move in a courageous direction, I would like to elevate some of the movement leaders’ most urgent lessons. 

Nonprofits Play a Part, but Movements Change the World

From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights Movement, our panelists made it clear: movements are the forces that transform the world. Nonprofits are often tethered to the same systems that intentionally target and disenfranchise Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. The truth is nonprofits cannot reform a system built on oppression. However, movements are historically rooted in challenging colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and all of the other structures that disenfranchise people of the global majority. Building power requires our sector to decenter itself and uplift the wisdom, needs, and solutions of those most directly impacted by systemic injustice. Only then can we move beyond the constraints that prevent us from dismantling systems of oppression.


Moving Beyond Structures that Shackle Movement Leaders

It is time for philanthropy to move away from a grant culture founded on a retributive model. More often than not, our sector operates from a hierarchy of finances that reflects capitalist structures. This operating mode reinforces itself through white-dominant norms of professionalism, outcomes, and paperwork that do nothing to serve leaders or scale movements. Instead, these norms demand time and labor from individuals already operating with limited resources. As Vijay Gupta stated, “I want to stop tricking myself into believing that if I twist language that the work of my heart will be funded.”

Panelists implored philanthropy to abandon its fixation with performance and evaluation. Our sector cannot continue asking movement leaders fighting for Black Lives or Indigenous resistance to produce outcomes for their work. In the last decade, the protest chants that have emerged from these movements have become the national conversations and policies that elected officials must face. As Melina articulated, “We see the promise of democracy because of these movements.” It is time for philanthropy to disentangle itself from white-dominant practices and instead fund liberation. 


Sustaining Movement Leaders 

Funders have the resources to invest in the real and urgent needs of our leaders on the ground. Movements don’t always have grant writers, designers, or a research team; they often lack essentials like office supplies and technology. Movement work happens through the contributions of volunteers and individuals who have dedicated their time to the cause. Instead of asking them to complete more paperwork, grantmakers can provide the unrestricted funds needed for these groups to function and hire needed staff and support. Moreover, movement leaders are exhausted and carry the weight of confronting systemic violence daily. Funders can support leaders personally by funding their rest, their therapy, and their nourishment. Philanthropy has a crucial role to play in creating the conditions for community leadership to thrive. 

Having the Freedom to Dream

Our panelists challenged us to have the courage to abandon the structures that do not serve an equitable world. Philanthropy needs to shift away from models built on lack and bureaucracy and instead focus on practices grounded in love and restoration. I urge our sector to dream big and to have the courage to step away from what is and what continues to constrain all of us. As Dr. Abdullah said, “Systems will never change themselves. We need to create new realities.”


Thank you to the 600+ philanthropic and community leaders who joined our virtual convening. As a reminder, all Meeting the Movement registrants can continue to access Swapcard and watch all of the conference content on-demand. We look forward to sharing more conference lessons inspired by the rest of our sessions and panelists in the coming weeks. 

Additionally, SCG will be hosting a series of programs designed to deepen our learning and further the conversations prompted by our Virtual Conference. These events will include new workshops for our Full Cost Project, a continuation of our Trust-Based Philanthropy series, an encore event for our Family Philanthropy Town Hall, and many others. Please keep an eye out for registration information soon. 

We are incredibly grateful to each of you who supported Meeting the Movement, to all the sponsors who believe in our work, and to our team, who will always innovate to bring the SCG network together. We hope you left our annual conference invigorated to take bold actions, embrace trust-based partnerships, and center equity in every aspect of your work. 


In Solidarity,

Christine Essel
President & CEO, Southern California Grantmakers


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